Report back from writing trainer and facilitator Pierre:
The circle of orange jackets tells one story. The fact that everyone’s shoes are different tells another. Running a writing workshop inside a prison arouses many emotions and curiosities: the uniforms bring discipline, mark the prisoners as other, and reduce their individuality. The shoes have other stories attached to them: complexity, inequality and uniqueness are revealed by the array of sneakers, slippers and slips ons.
We, Helen Webster and Pierre Brouard, are running a series of writing workshops at Zonderwater Prison outside Cullinan. An organiser of the prison’s reading group, contacted All About Writing, asking if they could teach the group some writing skills to tell their stories. The prison authorities embraced the idea, agreed to it as a pilot project, and if it works it could be extended to other prisons.
We have a trainee social worker in the room with us. She is using this as an opportunity to write up what we are doing, and is also a bridge between us and the somewhat mysterious workings of prison life. The room we’re in is tiny and the plastic chairs are squashed in a vague semi-circle. The flip chart stand has been discarded because one leg won’t work and every now and then an inmate drops the file of notes we’ve given them because there are no tables.
We manage to block it all out: the clanging gates, the noisy corridors, and the rather bleak institutional walls and floors. We’ve run two sessions already, and the learning curve is steep, for them and for us! But everyone is keen, the four-hour sessions go in a blur, and we are optimistic that something good is going to come from this.
All About Writing hopes to publish the stories the inmates will tell – yes these men have transgressed society’s norms, but many of their stories are universal: lost love, opportunities missed, mistakes made, dreams of something better. We’re both learning a great deal from this, about ourselves, about each other, and about how to work creatively in a complex context. We’ll keep you posted!